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how much globalization can we bear?

In 2003, German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski published a little book with the intriguing title: 'How much globalization can we bear?' ('Wieviel Globalisierung verträgt der Mensch?'). Ten years later and in the midst of several global crises, this question has lost none of its urgency.

Rather than wrestling with the many symptoms of globalization - winner takes all capitalism, social inequality and modern forms of slavery, ecological and climatological disaster, to name a few - Safranski is interested in a much simpler question: the effect all this has on the individual. How do we as individuals deal with the full-on confrontation with the global, which is advertized as the world at our fingertips but which turns out to be frighteningly and uncontrollably chaotic?

With this individual, anthropological approach, Safranski's book is in many ways the companion piece to Zygmunt Bauman's 'Liquid Times' (2007), which analyzed the problems of globalization on a more systemic, sociological level. Much as Bauman described the modern world as liquid, fragmented and endemically uncertain, Safranski sums up the overwhelming effects of globalization:

The total effect is like that of a worldwide natural disaster, man-made though unplanned. Yet the whole thing unfolds with the help of precise technologies and calculated strategies of profit maximization, rational in the particular but irrational overall.

Of course a central trait of modern globalization is information technology, creating real-time visibility and knowledge of (potentially) the entire world. This web of global media coverage has grown exponentially since 2003 - when social media were yet to be invented - and has in a very real sense exacerbated the problem. The result, for the individual, is a problem of complexity and information: the smaller the world gets, the more bewilderingly complex it seems to become.

Globality forms a complex context, and action within it usually brings consequences other than those originally intended. It is true that this has always been the case, but today we know more about it and can no longer remain blissfully ignorant. For the horizon of global problems now imposes itself even on our everyday consciousness, with the result that there are more and more occasions on which we feel our lack of power. Our particular lifeworld is no longer a sheltered area. Almost every change in our immediate surroundings - in our work, food, transport, media use or health matters - can be understood as the last link in a causal chain that we cannot see as a whole, but about which we know so much that it stretches far back into the highly complex global web.

There are vaguely problematic strings attached to everything we do, from the food we buy to the banks we use to the planes we take – we always leave a footprint (ecological, water, slavery, et cetera) and it always seems to result in damage somewhere. The point, however, is that we know about all this only in scattered factoids, half-read articles and alarming documentaries, leaving a residue of non-actionable guilt. Or as Safranski succinctly frames this globalized attitude:

Every new item of information also conveys a sense of impotence.

To put this situation in context, consider this quote from Goethe's 'Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship' ('Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre', 1796):

Man is born to fit into a limited situation; he can understand simple, close and definite purposes, and he gets used to employing the means which are near at hand; but as soon as he goes any distance, he knows neither what he will nor what he should be doing, and it is all one whether he is distracted by the large number of objects or whether he is put out by their greatness and dignity. It is always a misfortune when a man is induced to strive for something with which he cannot associate himself through some regular spontaneous activity.

The translation of the last part is tricky in English: the German reads "eine regelmäßige Selbsttätigkeit", conveying self-directedness or autonomy more than spontaneity. And a new sense of autonomy is exactly what Safranski prescribes for us. We need new ways to filter the global stream of information, a new immune system to be able to function in the face of all these global processes.

In 'How much globalization can we bear?' Safranski doesn't get very practical on how to go about this – discussing possible solutions he becomes rather poetic and metaphorical. But since 2003 we've seen a number of other critical thinkers approach this problem, especially how to stem the global deluge of information.

Two recent examples, both from 2010, are Rolf Dobelli's essay 'Avoid News' and Nicholas Carr's book 'The Shallows'. Dobelli stated boldly that news is to the brain what sugar is to the body: addictive and debilitating. Carr warned sternly that our computers - always online, always logged in - are now distraction machines, steadily eroding our capacity for concentration and reflection. Both, in effect, pleaded for a media diet.

To be sure, this is only part of a solution: globalization poses much wider problems than only media consumption. What of our other consumption - food, clothing, housing, technology, transport, finances - all of which is now linked up in the too-complex-to-fathom global web, and all of which is now suspect. The question here is one of responsibility, and not surprisingly we've seen a host of initiatives for more responsible, local, ecological, social and sustainable consumption. In fact, we've already reached the point where some of these initiatives themselves have become suspect - another symptom, Bauman and Safranski would no doubt agree, of these liquid times.

Safranski's book remains an important voice in any serious discussion of globalization, both for his anthropological perspective and his philosophical context. (I haven't even touched on his chapters on Plato's concept of thymos, man's "passionate craving for difference", and Kant's views on humanity, solidarity and "the path from the I to the We".)

A decade on, his conclusion still stands, uncomfortably and urgently in need of further sensemaking.

The time is gone when the range of possible action was protected by lack of knowledge, when action was associated with a local area for which it was still possible to take responsibility. A life of improvisation in one's immediate surroundings has lost its innocence.
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